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Thinking about values in tension

A tea farmer at Virtual City, an Acumen investee company in East Africa

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post on August 1, 2012.

In David Brooks’ July 25th column, he discusses the power of holding contradictory tensions, a power that underscores what makes the Olympics so vital and essential in uniting us as a single world while also celebrating individuals and nations.  He goes onto say that all enduring institutions – and people – must hold contradictory thoughts to function effectively.  At Acumen, we recognize the same need in the world and in our daily work. Indeed, our very values reflect those contradictions.

Rather than create a list of single words or short phrases that we see too often in corporate settings, we decided to create pairs of values that must live in opposition to one another.  We wanted to say out loud what we know to be true: the work of creating change requires the moral imagination and, at times, courage, to consider trade-offs as we make the best decisions we can.  To be effective, we need to know how to be both accountable and generous, when to listen and when to lead, how to be audacious while practicing humility. These opposing values all rest on the foundation of respect and integrity, two immutable values for the work we do, where the absence of either undermines our very purpose.  We aim to be leaders who are not simply looking for a roadmap to follow, but are willing to challenge the status quo, to understand the world as it is, yet have the audacity and moral courage to build the world that could be.

This framework enables us to be more proactive and nuanced in designing and supporting the right solutions for a messy world where the poor especially have been left out of too many opportunities.  For example, it is easy to agree that clean drinking water is a human right, but what kinds of delivery systems would ensure access to all while also insisting on efficiencies that allow us to use this scarce resource most effectively? What kinds of approaches are both scalable and sustainable? The same questions must be asked for healthcare, education, energy, agriculture, housing – indeed, all of the areas in which we work.

Even more specifically, how do we structure financial instruments that are generous and patient enough to enable entrepreneurs to experiment and fail, to discover what truly works for the poor, while also building in the needed accountability for success, both in terms of how the company operates and getting it market-ready to attract additional capital? How can we approach these challenges with the humility to admit the things we do not know while not allowing self-doubt to stand in the way of big dreams and aspirations?

Institutions navigating our interconnected, fast-changing world have a great opportunity to integrate such questions into their own strategies and decision-making. Indeed, a moral code for our shared future demands that we face squarely our responsibilities to one another while recognizing the need for competition, innovation, our very human desire to succeed, to be seen and, getting back to Brooks’ column, to win.

I personally feel great optimism that we are embarking on a global path to more nuanced conversations.  Brooks notes the approach of Procter & Gamble, which, at one point pursued two seemingly contradictory strategies simultaneously. I see a growing number of corporations, non-profits, governments, and start-up companies asking themselves the hard questions about how to balance their short-term business issues with long-term institutional values, even when this does not yield easy answers.

Our challenge now is to design better systems altogether to merge the best of market forces with a much larger commitment to building the kind of society in which all of us have a chance to thrive, to win, and – always – to contribute. It isn’t always comfortable, but changing the status quo never is. And in an increasingly complex world, that means finding ways to identify and balance values in tension as we work together to create the future we dare to dream.

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Jacqueline Novogratz is the Founder and CEO of Acumen Fund. Follow her on Twitter @JNovogratz

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